My love of Evil Corporate Coffee
I never used to like coffee. As a kid I was far more inclined to have a glass of orange squash or, if I was lucky, a can of carbonated pop. As I got older I tried coffee more, but it quite often left me a jittery mess. And once I was old enough to drink alcohol, I struggled to understand why anyone would spend as much on a cup of coffee as they would on a pint of beer.
This was around the period when the Evil Corporate Coffee Empires started their quest to take over the high streets of Britain. I fully understand the concerns that the Evil Corporate Coffee Empires play a major part in the homogenisation of our towns and cities. They drive small firms out of business. They are the easy-to-hate symbols of multi-national nastiness. They are sinister purveyors of the finest gut-rotting beverages.
And yet, dear reader, I have to confess, I quite like them.
I seem to have taken quite a circuitous route to Evil Corporate Coffee. Sure, I might have had the odd caramel latte nonsense, but that tasted more like a milkshake than a coffee.
I might have had a coffee after a meal in a restaurant, but that was more to stave off the post-gluttony slumber. Proper coffee-ness was to come later.
My first real coffee experiences came with the small coffee companies that have emerged in the UK in recent years, selling decent coffee that is well-made and well-presented. Often run by Australians or New Zealanders, these places take a real pride in serving the best coffee, and take a zealous approach in spreading the word that coffee can be better than the Evil Corporate muck the people of Britain drink by the gallon-load.
I started drinking piccolos and flat whites. I realised that I probably hadn’t liked coffee much beforehand mainly because it had been awful. I realised that good coffee didn’t make me feel so jittery and horrible. Or if it did, it was worth it.
However, these great places had their own issues. They are often pretty expensive, at least in terms of a volume to cash ratio. Many are just street stands, or very small cafés. They are pretty few and far between. What if I fancied a cheap, big mug of coffee? What if I wanted somewhere to sit, to rest my weary bones and savour my coffee? Or what if there just wasn’t a decent coffee place nearby when I really fancied one?
This is when the Evil Corporate Coffee Empires started to woo me. Their sugary nonsense drinks were expensive, but the filter coffee was cheap, and not too bad. There was plenty of room to sit down and relax. And they were EVERYWHERE. Oh the joys of convenience!
Sure, I’d still support the local coffee places. They still do the best coffee, and generally offer the best service. But the Evil Corporate Coffee Empires didn’t seem quite so evil anymore. I guess that is the secret of their success. And the secret of their evilness too, probably.
I like to get out of the office at lunchtimes. I don’t want to be chained to my desk, and I don’t want to find myself working through an hour I’m not actually paid to work. I think it is healthy.
However, there is only so much wandering around I can do. Ideally, I want to sit down, relax a little, and read for a while. Most lunchtime venues are geared towards getting people in and out as soon as possible. Sitting outside isn’t a reliable option with the British weather. Pubs are perfect, but my liver won’t allow it. Plus, I can’t work every afternoon drunk.
But what’s that on the horizon? Ah, the welcoming glow of the Evil Corporate Coffeeshop. Here is my refuge, my retreat. Here is somewhere specifically designed for mooching about in.
I need not feel self-conscious about spending an hour with a coffee and a muffin, as that guy over there has been eking out a small black coffee for the last four hours, whilst making the most of the free Wi-Fi.
The décor is muted, the seating comfy and the ‘Community Noticeboard’ reassuring.
The music is good, if unchallenging. It appears the playlist has been curated by someone who loves Dad Rock as much as me. A place that plays Spoon and Wilco and Ryan Adams can’t be that evil, surely?
Here is my pseudo-intellectual hub, where patrons pretend to read good books, and pretend to write great ones. We all know they are really reading the latest airport novel, or updating their Facebook, but who cares when the panini is so tasty? And if I was surrounded by true intellectuals, I’d just feel inferior. And Evil Corporate Coffee is all about making you feel good.
I know this makes me a bad person. I should steadfastly stick to local, ethical companies. I should do something more productive with my lunch hour. I could work out. I could just stay at my desk once in a while and work more.
But…no. I need that coffee. And I need it served aspirational, cosy and corporate.
Image from the US National Archives via Flickr
Apologies for all the italics in this post. I have no idea what I’m playing at.
In my last town, my hangout was a local coffee shop. I couldn’t drink coffee, sadly, because it gives me panic attacks, but I’d drink tea, bum the wifi, etc. I’m not sure what it is about smaller coffee shops, but they bring in some strange people: even though I lived in a small town, my coffee shop brought a wide variety of people like the highly sexual lady with schizophrenia, the old guy who won’t stop talking about Robespierre, the religious cult, a flirty guy with a brain injury (whose brain injury prevented him from remembering he’d already used that come-on line), hippie artists trying to sell their wares, etc.
It was a great atmosphere, the best, but I could never just sit quietly and anonymously to get anything done. So on that front anyway, I understand the draw of the corporate coffee shops.
Sounds like a great place, and perfect for people-watching. Sounds like the perfect setting for a novel.
If there were more suitable independent coffee shops, I would probably use them ahead of the corporate ones, but they aren’t great for getting anything done/reading in peace.
There is one I use from time to time, but the high concentration of hipsters and loud drum ‘n’ bass isn’t that appealing to me. Plus, I much prefer plush soft furnishing and polite wood panelling to flea-ridden sofas and ironic pictures of Justin Beiber and the royal family.
More to the point, I seem to get less annoyed/neurotic in faceless coffee shops. Case in point – today I went to the aforementioned indie coffee shop. Sat next to me was a guy reading Infinite Jest, and drinking a free cup of water. First, who sits in a coffee shop and doesn’t buy anything? (Same goes for people who bring their own food into a coffee shop. I get disproportionately annoyed by this.) Secondly, I feel bad that I haven’t yet braved Infinite Jest, and here is a guy already 800 pages in. Not a calming experience.
I feel I have said too much already.
You should pretend you read Infinite Jest and say something like, “Dude, that book is sooo 1996.” Game, set, match.
I’ll do that if I see him again.
At the very least I shall slip some footnotes in his water.
As a longtime coffee addict I too have come to appreciate the convenience and innocuous safety offered by the evil corporate coffee empires though I have to admit that, of recent years I’m more likely to eschew all coffee that I don’t make myself at least here in Exeter. That’s entirely because there’s no place in town that does a ristretto or single espresso – my drinks of choice – half as well as I can make it at home for less than third of what they’ll charge me.
I do like the idea of the independent shops and have really enjoyed some in other cities. In Plymouth for example, I found a little place in the mids of student neighbourhood that was tucked away at the back of a skate shop that blared death metal out nonstop. In my mind they did the best coffee in the entire city and it was always strange to sit in the place because, around the corner from one of the uni’s biggest buildings as it was, the coffee shop was always full of lecturers being watched by very confused students who had come into to browse the skate shop.
When I grab a coffee here in Exeter it is invariably at one of the chains. We have a few independents but they’re either no good or, in the case of the one that does make decent coffee, staffed by people who are aggressively better than their customers because they are cool enough to work in that particular establishment. That’s always fun . . . I suppose there are still some drawbacks to living down here in the provinces.
You’ll have to let me know if there are any particularly good shops in your neighbourhood. You mentioned it’s not far from where I’ll be starting my ride in july and I’m particularly fond of a nice espresso or two before getting in the saddle . . .
I need to get into homemade coffee. I have an old cafetière, but could do with a fancier contraption. What do you use?
Espresso and death metal sounds like the ultimate pick-me-up. If you’re not wide-eyed after that, there’s no hope!
I think horrible staff is an issue everywhere. It’s funny how some staff think it is OK to be rude to the very people paying their wages. A friendly coffee-person is to be treasured.
I will start researching coffees near the start-line. There are a few quirky places about that might be promising…
I’ve come to terms with corporate coffee. When it’s the only option on the road or while on errands, I give in and buy a cup. If I have the time and am close to an independent coffee maker, I go that route. To me, the importance is drinking good coffee, regardless of the source.
You know, I’m sure I could link the corporate/indie coffee industry to your thinking on corporate/indie rock and beer. But right now it makes my head hurt! One for another time, perhaps.